Search Engines and Algorithms: New Social Search

Social Search engines are based on the combination of machine-generated results and a people-driven search method. Instead of relying solely on a search algorithm, Social Searches allow people to help each other find the the most relevant and useful results. Social Search compliments web search, driven by publishers and web sites, by providing a better search experience that is powered primarily by people and communities.

What is a Social Search Engine?

In the second article of this series, I addressed the new Social Search engine from Yahoo! Search. The approach to Yahoo’s Social Search engine is one that complements web search by enabling users to search the knowledge and expertise of their friends and community in addition to the web. Let’s review it for a second.

Yahoo has added the ability to save a page or site, tag that page or site with keywords, and then share information with other people. There is the ability as well to obtain the information that other people wish to share. This allows a user to comment on pages they find useful, then give extra information about it to others in the community the user builds. Then, when web searches are performed, not only algorithmic findings are used, but also the information in the personal tags saved by the user, which provides personalized search results based on the shared knowledge of the people they trust.

Yet, even as the news is reported regarding Yahoo’s Social Search, another player has stepped onto the field. A new search engine, called AnooX, announced its own version of Social Search recently. According to AnooX, their search engine is fundamentally better than any traditional, machine-only driven, search engine, including Yahoo’s. (I might add here though, that AnooX is probably only referring to Yahoo! Search’s Slurp algorithm, and not their new Social Search.)

AnooX search results are democratically generated. They state, “On [one] hand Google and Yahoo! are based on machine only generated search results, where the knowledge of the people (that is you) [is] ignored. Because their search results are generated in some mysterious ways where the people (that is you again) have no say or input in the search results. Put simply, they represent information (search result) dictatorship. That is they tell you here is the search results, ‘just take it’ – you cannot do anything to change it.”

AnooX claims to be a fundamentally better search engine than either Yahoo or Google, even though they readily admit where the traditional search engine leaders have advantages, but AnooX emphasizes it’s not because they have better technologies. AnooX claims the reason is simply that the search engine giants are running on many more servers than AnooX, and that they are simply better funded. Google and Yahoo “are armed with billions of dollars to buy any computing resources they want, AnooX as a ‘boot strapped’ start up does not have that luxury.” It might be moot to point out that when both Yahoo and Google started, they had to raise capital, “boot strapped” like any other start up company. Be that as it may, this is still an awfully bold claim to make: that if money wasn’t the question, AnooX would beat Google and Yahoo hands down. How is it they feel they can say this?

How AnooX Works

Initially, the AnooX machine generates the search results using proprietary crawlers and indexers. “At this stage AnooX search results are very good, on par with Yahoo! or Google,” they say. Then, you sign up with AnooX as a voting member. As a voting member, one may vote for any site within the search results.

AnooX search results are continuously improved based on the majority vote of the members, across the nearly infinite number of keywords that are possible, based on the most democratic model of one individual person’s vote; or one vote per keyword; in theory, that is.

Testing Out AnooX

Is there discernment among multiple votes? How are these “results” determined to be objective? Even in our own government democracy, limits have to be made on how many votes are allowed per person, and so must the same be done for a “democratic” search engine; whether it’s decided per person, per IP, or whatever the criteria for establishing a unique identity. What steps does AnooX take to ensure that the votes are objective?

Out of curiosity, I signed up and attempted to manipulate the search results. AnooX attempts to verify your identity before allowing you to vote by either a credit card, or by a notarized copy of your photo ID mailed in. While usually people only have one photo ID, so this could be reasonably secure; but verifying your identity with a credit card is not necessarily an exclusively secure option. I, for one, have several credit cards, some still have old addresses attached to them, and since I just got married, I have two names I could use, and with the ten new Visa Gift Cards I received as wedding gifts, I technically could be anyone I wanted to be. In this way unscrupulous individuals that want to manipulate the search engine results in the first place have several ways available to them to do it easily. For the purpose of proving my point, I signed up for three different accounts, and was totally able to do so.

In my humble opinion, anyone could influence these search results, and they would not be in any way objective. And certainly, if I can come up with a simple method of manipulating the results, since I’m not technically clever or have a criminal mindset, how many other holes in this method could conceivably be created by those who are and those who do?

SEO Concerns About Social Search

Social Search methodology could be an attack on the SEO industry if the engine takes off. So now, optimizing not only means influence search algorithms, it also means getting friends, colleagues, or even scripts in the form of bots to vote your SERPs as good and relevant to their searches.

SEO practices and hiring a consultant could basically fly out the window for this type of search engine. Results manipulation in this way, for better or worse, would turn the SEO industry on its ear.

Another relevant question is how can new SERPs climb? If you have a new site with zero votes, does it just sit underneath all the ones with votes despite it being fresher and having more detailed and better information? According to AnooX’s method: absolutely. We are in no better situation than when people who have more money, more time, more creativity, and could influence results such as in search engines that take into account paid advertising over organic search results. Maybe if people cannot find the good SERPs to vote on them, it could be a huge mess.

AnooX gives a scenario on their website. “For example, you search for “Hotels in Paris” and you see 10,000 listings. You think that “Hotel France” which is listing number 46 should be listed higher. You then click on Vote for This button in front of this listing. Within 15 minutes of your Vote then the AnooX search result listing will be updated as per all the votes that have been received during the past 15 minutes. So when someone searches for “Hotels in Paris” again, AnooX search results will reflect the result of your vote for “Hotel France” by having moved it to the top of the search results, if it is the only listing that has received a Vote under that keyword or will rank it based on the Votes that it has received compared to the other listings under this Keyword which also have received Votes.”

One of the major drawbacks to this scenario is the ability to easily manipulate the results in order to position my own site. If a site doesn’t receive a vote within 15 minutes, it gets bumped. I’m not sure where: if it gets moved to position #2, or somewhere else, but if my site is the only one that’s voted on, it suddenly becomes number one? I can’t figure this out just yet.

One of the justifications they use in their ranking method is the majority is usually right theory. “In fact this premise has been proven in many recent studies, that is: when it comes to vast domains of knowledge, the majority are on average far more right than any other source of information, whether it being machines or human editors.”

I hate to point out the obvious here, but the majority isn’t always right. The majority at one time believed the world was flat; that human slavery was morally acceptable; and that only birds could fly. To assume that what is accurate and relevant is the same as what’s wildly popular at the moment is a hugely narrow-minded, and a largely incorrect, perspective. Further, I would really like to know which of these “recent studies” they are referring to proving the majority IS indeed right. Some studies rarely prove anything; many usually only support a theory. In my opinion, if you can pepper the majority vote with instances of inaccuracies or incorrect judgment within that vote, then the notion of proving the majority is right theory is naïve, at best; and at worst, it is extremely ignorant.

Comparing Yahoo’s and AnooX’s Social Searches

So how does the way AnooX works compare to Yahoo’s Social Search? Let’s look at some similarities.

  • The influence of the community plays a part in both Yahoo’s and AnooX’s Social Search engines.

  • SERPs can be influenced or manipulated.

  • SEO efforts will provide only some relevancy tools, but human popularity and politics could be more effective.

  • Both rely upon an algorithmic basis for generating results, then supplementing relevancy by human choices.

Now, let’s look at a few points where they differ.

  • AnooX believes the majority is right and should completely influence the search results, whereas Yahoo considers it only a small factor to be influence by.

  • AnooX attempts to verify identities in order to try to obtain objective results; Yahoo does not.

  • Yahoo’s search results are returned in less than a second, while AnooX’s results can easily take up to 10 seconds.

Because AnooX is still in beta, they are still working out a few of the bugs. Some problems AnooX is experiencing and goals they have to evolve their engine from beta status:

  1. Further improvement to search result speed (SRS), toward getting SRS down to under 1 second (Google and Yahoo Search Result Speed (SRS) are under 1 second on average whereas AnooX is around 7 seconds.)

  2. To index greater number of pages and to index at faster rate (They have indexed a few Billion pages, whereas AnooX has indexed about 20 million (home) pages.)

  3. Better detection of junk pages

  4. Better and more complete display of page titles and descriptions

“To address the number 1 & 2 issues we need not just to improve the core of the search engine, which we are working on, but we need mainly more servers and more powerful servers. And since we are a small business it is not so easy for us to just get more and more servers.”

Social Search engines, while a novel idea, are fraught with obvious politically driven issues, and SERPs manipulation is easier to achieve than with a computer-driven algorithm alone. But since there is a lot of room for evolution and change with this idea, I can’t discount it completely. Search engines are constantly revamping and refining their techniques; so while I have reservations about the Social Search the way it is now, I am very interested to see where it will be in a few months, or even a few years, as there is a definite room for enhancement of the algorithmic search. So I would promote a Social Search engine as a supplement to current web searching, as long as you’re aware that Social Search can be manipulated; but I think it’s too early in the game to make any sort of predictions as to how the Social Search will revolutionize the search industry as a whole.

As for AnooX’s claims that they have a fundamentally better search engine, I would wholeheartedly disagree; however, it is a nice sales pitch.

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